AGE OF CONSENT (COMMITTEE STAGE) – 10 February 1999
Dr Julian Lewis: I am delighted to follow the last two speakers. Before they spoke, it appeared manifest that the entire debate on clause stand part would be conducted solely by Opposition Members and from one point of view. I am on the Standing Committee dealing with the other clause in the Bill, and I have noticed a strange phenomenon that has been repeated here tonight. Certain hon. Members who were very vociferous on 25 January when we debated the Bill on Second Reading have been sitting as quietly as mice. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr Ashton) spoke on clause 2 in Standing Committee – there was just a single speech from the main man on the Labour Benches – and this evening, we have heard one Labour speech – from the main woman. I find that orchestration somewhat unsettling in what should be a debate on an issue of conscience and a free vote.
I have considerable experience in the way in which pressure groups operate and I have the impression that two pressure groups are operating tonight – an external pressure group in the form of the gay lobby and an internal pressure group in the form of the Government Whips, who seem to have carved a deal on the way in which Labour Members must conduct themselves in these proceedings.
I shall not be as eloquent as my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Woodward) because I am not reading out my speech word for word, but I noticed that at the end of the debate on 25 January, the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr McNulty) was kind enough to refer to me in my absence. He made various criticisms and imputed many motivations to my speech. Having made those remarks he was gentlemanly enough to observe:
"When I see him I shall remind him of what I have just said. He needs to be told and have that put in his face." – [Official Report, 25 January 1999; Vol.324, c.103.]
Strangely enough, when we met later that evening, the hon. Gentleman did nothing of the sort. In fact he was his usual charming, debonair and carefree self.
Mr Tony McNulty (Harrow, East): When I saw the hon. Gentleman subsequently in the Corridors beyond the Chamber, the thought of speaking to him turned my stomach.
Dr Lewis: That is just one more broken Labour promise.
In explaining why I oppose the clause, it is necessary to spell out, as I did at the beginning of my speech on 25 January, that what concerns me is not homosexuality, but a dangerous practice that carries a high medical risk – the practice of anal sex. Time and again throughout the debate on Second Reading, I and other hon. Members challenged those on the other side of the argument –including my hon. Friend the Member for Witney – to explain, once and for all and quite clearly, that if the enormously higher incidence of HIV infection and AIDS in our male homosexual community in Britain had not been caused primarily by the practice of anal sex, what had caused it. Answer came there none.
During today's debate, I and others have made it clear once again that our objections have nothing to do with the rights of adults. If my hon. Friend the Member for Witney had spoken in favour of a minority of repressed adults, I would have cheered him to the rafters, but he spoke in favour of allowing the act of buggery to be committed against young boys and girls of 16 and 17, when that act and the sharing of needles by drug addicts have resulted in a massively increased danger of contracting a deadly disease.
Dr Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): I feel that the hon. Gentleman is on another planet. Even if one accepts that certain acts carry greater risks when they are unprotected, in Britain we do not legislate against actions by private individuals that may be dangerous to their health. We do not legislate against heterosexual intercourse, which also can transmit disease, or against childbirth, although it can be dangerous. We criminalise drug use not because of the physical risks of human immune deficiency virus transmission, but for a series of other good reasons. So the hon. Gentleman has missed the point.
Dr Lewis: I was happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman, and shall be happy to do so again if he will answer a question. Does he approve of legalising prostitution and brothels on the basis that doing so will help to protect people's health, as they will be better supervised and the sex will be safer? Would he care to intervene on that point, too?
Dr Harris: I can only barely bother to get up to intervene on the point, which deals with an entirely separate matter. If a matter affects only private individuals and hurts no one else – which is what the Committee is judging for the age group we are considering – it should not be a matter in which the state should intervene. Prostitution and brothels are thought to affect society as a whole, and not only private individuals, as in the case we are considering.
Dr Lewis: The hon. Gentleman was absolutely truthful when he said that I am on a different planet from the other people in this Chamber, whom he represents. But I think that they are on a different planet from the vast majority of British parents, who are worried about their 16 and 17-year-old children – I repeat, children – who are being allowed to engage in a sexual act that will put their health, perhaps fatally, at risk.
I should like briefly to say a word about whether orientation is preordained, and hope that my words will faintly shine a bit of a spotlight on to my own motivations in opposing the provision. Although I know that Labour Members would like to portray me as some sort of secret hater of gays who does not have the courage to say so – [Interruption.] Yes, that is what they would like to do. I tell both Labour Members and my hon. Friends that my first experience of meeting a young boy who was gay was in my grammar school in Swansea. I remember his name and the great pity that I felt for him, because of the way in which – [Interruption.] Before hon. Members laugh, let them at least hear the story.
I felt sorry for the boy because of the way in which he was persecuted and shunned by the other pupils. I also remember asking him how it was that he got into that orientation. He did not say to me that it was a result of the fact that he had always known that he had those feelings. He told me that it was a result of the fact that an older youth had taken him to a bedroom, tied him to a bed and interfered with him. [Interruption.] I am sorry to see that a Labour Member finds this so hilarious. Would she care to intervene and tell me what is so funny about it? I thought that it was a personal tragedy. Would she care to tell me? Evidently not.
The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman: the debate should flow as fluently as possible. However, I should tell the Committee that every Member is entitled to express his or her point of view and be listened to in the Committee. There are deeply held, opposite views on the question. They should all be heard in the Committee.
Dr Lewis: I am particularly grateful to you, Sir Alan, for that ruling, and was appalled by that type of reaction. I still feel sorry for that lad. He was a very nice lad, and I feel sorry for what he went through. I wish that he had not had to go through it. However, in my opinion – and I think also in his opinion – there was no question of his having been born a homosexual.
I should point out also that, in the attitude that one can have on the matters we are debating, it is possible to have, as I have, homosexual friends. Probably my closest female friend went through a period of a lesbian relationship. I was not happy that she went through that period, and was happy that she came out of it. Nevertheless, I should tell hon. Members who doubt my sincerity in the matter that, had she never come out of it, she would have remained my closest female friend. I would go to the ends of the earth for her, and I think that she would do the same for me.
Therefore, when I express such considerations to the Committee, I do so not out of some hidden homophobia, but because the measure would legalise the seduction by people who are adults of people who are children into a physical act – the act of buggery –whether those children are male or female, putting their lives at risk.
Everything in this debate has been expressed on the basis of equality. There is an apparent slavishness to the principle of equality. Regardless of what else happens, people who support lowering the age of consent tell us that it must be done in the cause of equality. Such a position comes close to being – I am not allowed to say hypocritical – insincere.
If there were no way in which the homosexual age of consent could be lowered to 16 – if the choice, therefore, were between keeping the heterosexual age of consent at 16 and keeping the homosexual age of consent at 18, or raising the heterosexual age of consent to 18 – I would bet that all those hon. Members who have been prating about the supremacy of equality would sing a different tune. To them, it would be more important to preserve the differential as long as it favoured a lower age of consent for some form of sexual activity.
As I said in the debate on Second Reading, it is a mark of a civilised society that it raises ages of consent as it gets more civilised. The fact that the age of consent for heterosexual sex is lower than the age of consent for homosexual sex is not a sign that the higher age should be adjusted to the lower age. If equality reigns supreme, adjust the lower age to the higher age. But let us have enough of an insincere, dangerous and potentially fatal recommendation.